WASHINGTON (AP) — A newly released FBI document is helping to clarify the contours of an investigation into classified material at former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate. But many questions remain, especially since half of the affidavit detailing the FBI’s rationale for searching the property was blacked out.
That document, which the FBI submitted so it could obtain a warrant to search Trump’s winter home, provides new details about the volume and highly classified nature of what was recovered from Mar-a-Lago in January. It shows how Justice Department officials had raised concerns months before the investigation that close government secrets were being stored illegally — and then returned in August with a court-approved warrant and found even more classified records at the property.
All of this raises questions as to whether a crime was committed and, if so, by whom. Answers may not come quickly.
A department official this month described the investigation as in its early stages, indicating there is more work to be done as investigators review the documents they removed and continue to interview witnesses. Intelligence officials will simultaneously conduct an assessment of any national security risk that may be created by the disclosed documents.
At the very least, the investigation presents a political distraction for Trump as he lays the groundwork for a potential presidential bid.
Then there is the obvious legal risk.
A look at what follows:
WHAT IS THE FBI INVESTIGATING?
None of the administration’s legal filings released so far have singled out Trump — or anyone else — as a potential target of the probe. But the warrant and accompanying affidavit make clear that the investigation is active and criminal in nature.
The department investigates potential violations of several laws, including an Espionage Act that governs the collection, transmission or loss of national defense information. The other laws deal with the mutilation and removal of records as well as the destruction, alteration or falsification of records in federal investigations.
The investigation began quietly with a referral from the National Archives and Records Administration, which retrieved 15 boxes of records from Mar-a-Lago in January — 14 of which were found to contain classified information. In all, the FBI affidavit said, officials found 184 classified documents, including some that suggested they contained information from highly sensitive human sources. Several had what appeared to be Trump’s handwritten notes, the affidavit says.
The FBI has spent months investigating how the documents got from the White House to Mar-a-Lago and whether there are other classified files on the property. The office also sought to identify the person or persons “who may have removed or retained classified information without authorization and/or in an unauthorized location,” the affidavit states.
So far, the FBI has interviewed a “significant number of civilian witnesses,” according to a Justice Department release unsealed Friday, and is seeking “further information” from them. The FBI has not identified all of the “potential federal criminals” nor has it located all of the evidence relevant to its investigation.
WILL ANYONE CHARGE?
It’s hard to say at this point. To obtain a search warrant, federal agents must convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime at the location they want to search.
However, search warrants are not an automatic precursor to a criminal prosecution and certainly do not signal that charges are imminent.
Even so, the laws at issue are felonies that carry prison sentences.
A law, which includes the mismanagement of national defense information, was used in recent years to prosecute a government contractor who stockpiled reams of sensitive files in his Maryland home (sentenced to nine years in prison) and a National Security Agency employee accused of transmitting classified information to someone who was not authorized to receive it (case pending).
Attorney General Merrick Garland did not reveal his thinking. Asked last month about Trump as part of a separate investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on Capitol Hill, he replied that “no person is above the law.”
WHAT DID TRUMP DO?
Trump, angered by the records search, issued a statement Friday saying he and his team have cooperated with the Justice Department and that its representatives “GIVE THEM A LOT.”
This contradicts the Trump team’s portrayal in the affidavit and the fact that the FBI investigation took place despite warnings months earlier that the documents were not being stored properly and that there was no secure location for them anywhere at Mar-a-Lago.
A letter released as part of the affidavit lays out the arguments Trump’s legal team plans to advance as the investigation moves forward. The May 25 letter from attorney M. Evan Corcoran to Jay Bratt, the head of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence division, lays out a strong, expansive view of the executive branch.
Corcoran argued that it was a “ground-breaking principle” that a president has absolute power to declassify documents — though he doesn’t actually say that Trump did. He also said the primary law governing the mishandling of classified information does not apply to the president.
The statute he cited in the letter was not among those the affidavit suggests the Justice Department is basing its investigation on. And in a footnote to the affidavit, an FBI agent noted that the law criminalizing the mishandling of national defense information does not use the term classified information.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in Florida told the Justice Department on Saturday to provide her with more specific information about classified records removed from his Florida estate and said it was her “preliminary intention” to appoint a special master in the case. Trump’s lawyers are calling for an independent review of the records to identify any that may be protected by executive privilege.
WHAT DID THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION SAY?
The White House for weeks has been tight-lipped about the investigation, with officials repeatedly saying they will let the Justice Department do its job. But there are signs that management is taking notice.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines notified Congress on Friday that her office would conduct a classified review of documents recovered during the investigation.
Intelligence officials will also conduct an assessment of any potential national security risk, Haynes wrote to the leaders of two House committees who had requested it.
In the letter, Haynes said any intelligence assessment would be “conducted in a manner that does not unduly interfere” with the criminal investigation.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.
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